Decision fatigue: how to manage during the admissions process

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    Being faced with some of the most important decisions of your life can be overwhelming and stressful, especially when you’re a graduating student deciding on which college and degree to pursue. Too many decisions can negatively impact your cognitive capacity, increasing the likelihood of procrastination, making poor choices, and decreasing your willpower — setting you up to be exhausted and overwhelmed.

    If you’re feeling irritable, tired, and having trouble focusing, you may be experiencing decision fatigue. We consulted with education and mental health experts to cover everything from what it is, what causes it, and how you can combat decision fatigue during the admissions process.

    • What is decision fatigue?
    • Symptoms of decision fatigue
    • How it can affect the admissions process
    • How to beat decision fatigue
    • Managing decision fatigue throughout college
    • Help your student through decision fatigue

    What is decision fatigue?

    Decision fatigue is mental exhaustion resulting from an overwhelming amount of decisions a person faces in their day-to-day lives, leading to difficulty making good decisions.

    These decisions, combined with more important and pressing issues, cause stress and emotional exhaustion, leading to poor choices and clouded judgment. It’s important to note that decision fatigue not only prevents you from making decisions, but it can actually cause you to make bad ones.

    What causes decision fatigue?

    The main cause of decision fatigue is making too many decisions over a length of time. There’s no time to think and reflect on the consequences because time is limited and we begin to feel rushed to make the right choice. Each day we’re required to make crucial decisions, from what to eat, where to do, or what school we want to go to.

    Ultimately, we are still capable of these choices, even when we’re tired. However, small tasks combined with more important and pressing issues tend to strain our minds and cloud our judgment.

    Symptoms of decision fatigue

    What are the symptoms of decision fatigue? How do you know if you have it? You’ve probably experienced them without knowing what was causing them. Some of the main symptoms can be found below:

    Lack of willpower

    Feeling weighed down by the number of decisions you have on your plate can result in high levels of stress and anxiety. As a result, you’re more likely to experience less motivation and a lack of willpower when going about your everyday life. Even small decisions like what you should have for breakfast can have the same negative impact on your mental health as more important ones.

    Brain fog

    Stress from something like college admissions can cause students to lose mental and emotional clarity. They’re forced to make unfamiliar decisions at every level, which can result in the inability to focus and make good decisions with a clear mind. Brain fog can appear in different ways, such as confusion, forgetfulness, or lack of clarity.

    Decision paralysis

    Decision paralysis results from having too many options on your plate. When a student is faced with multiple college decisions, they may begin to feel overwhelmed with all the options and are unable to continue making clear decisions — or any decisions at all.

    How it can affect the admissions process

    Decision fatigue is something almost everyone goes through at some point in their life, but it is particularly common amongst high school and college students during the admissions process. Deciding on which school or career you want to pursue is a big decision, and the weight of that decision can manifest itself in the forms of stress and fatigue.

    When a student is overwhelmed with their admissions choices, they may experience intense mental exhaustion that could ultimately affect their final decision. When faced with so many options, whether it’s based on financial aid or location of the school, the likelihood of procrastination and poor decision-making increases. As a result, the wrong decision could be made at the height of decision fatigue.

    How to beat decision fatigue: 7 exercises and tips

    Thankfully, there are some ways to combat decision-making fatigue and make sure you’re approaching these stressful times with a clear mind. Learning how to overcome decision fatigue is no easy task, but by implementing the right strategies, you’ll be ready to tackle those college decisions in no time.

    1. Understand how decision fatigue manifests

    The best way to deal with decision fatigue is to understand why it’s happening and what you can do to avoid it. Exhaustion can manifest itself in many different ways for different people, but learning how to avoid decision fatigue can help you take the time to reflect and make the necessary changes.

    2. Create daily routines

    When you have a daily routine set in place, it becomes one less decision that you need to make. Try implementing this at the start of your day — research has shown that this is often the hardest time to make decisions.

    It might sound boring, but try sticking to the same breakfast each morning. Get up at the same time and exercise at the same time. Creating routines will allow you to move throughout your day without making a decision about everything that you do.

    3. Pace yourself

    Prioritize your mental health by pacing yourself through the process and taking some deep breaths. Avoid rushing into any decisions and set a steady pace to keep yourself relaxed. Don’t hesitate to take a nice bubble bath or read a book to decompress.

    According to Meggen Horwatt, a mental health counselor based in Ohio, pacing yourself during the admissions process is the best way to get a clear mind. “You are not going to make the best decision if you are experiencing heightened anxiety or feeling burnt out from the process,” she says. “Utilize your self-care practices to take care of yourself while you navigate this process. Ultimately, when it comes down to making a decision, you need to make the decision that is right for you.”

    4. Prioritize important decisions first

    Decision exhaustion will cause every decision you make to be less effective, so it’s a good idea to prioritize the important ones first in the morning and then plan your day after that. If you aim to have the most important decisions made by noon that day, you’ll be left with the smaller decisions that don’t require as much brainpower.

    To make a quick decision, critical thinking specialist Bethan Winn suggests using a coin flip to check with your gut. We often get caught up in overthinking and anxious thoughts when faced with a big decision. Flipping a coin to see how you feel about the outcome will help you realize what your true needs and wants are.

    5. Avoid rehashing decisions

    Once you’ve made your choice, stick with it. Don’t second-guess yourself once the decision is made, as it will only cause you to feel even more stressed and overwhelmed. Trust your gut and don’t dwell on past decisions — there’s a reason you chose that school and you should be proud of yourself.

    6. Make sure to eat and sleep

    Making important decisions on an empty stomach or when you’re sleep-deprived is a recipe for disaster. If you feel yourself getting hungry before making a final call, be sure to grab a snack or eat a meal beforehand. If you’re too tired, plan to decide the next day. A good night’s sleep and sound nutrition are important to sharpen your decision-making skills, especially during the admissions process.

    7. Use your resources

    Whether you’re a student in high school or college dealing with the admissions process, getting support from your teachers or counselors is a great way to clear your mind and make the right decision.

    According to Robert Puharich, a high school teacher of 16 years and founder of TeenLearner, connecting with your resources and talking to the people around you is crucial in overcoming decision exhaustion. Puharich says, “Students should take the time to slow down and reach out to adults and peers to talk to. School counselors are in place to help out, the administration is very knowledgeable, and teachers are always willing to support. Students are not alone and are surrounded by people who can help”.

    Download our infographic here to learn more about how to manage decision fatigue.

    Managing decision fatigue throughout college

    Decision-making fatigue can occur even after the admissions process. Once you get to college, there are many situations where you might find yourself facing a lot of decisions, from choosing a degree to getting involved with extracurricular activities.

    Choosing a degree

    Choosing the right degree program can be an overwhelming and difficult choice, especially when you’re an undeclared student or are just not entirely sure what you want to do yet. Many students are under the impression that they need to make a decision as soon as they set foot on campus, which can result in heightened stress and decision fatigue.

    • How to deal with it: Talk to your college counselor and evaluate your options. They can help you narrow down your choices and guide you in the right direction so you don’t feel pressured to make a rushed decision.

    In the classroom

    Students may also find themselves facing decisions inside the classroom. There’ll be times when you’re unsure about a class or a subject you’re studying, and you’ll be faced with some pretty big decisions.

    • How to deal with it: Create daily routines to help you stay organized and on track with schoolwork. If you’re feeling unsure about your classes, talk to the professor or your adviser to get their tips and advice.

    Social situations

    College can be a scary experience for some students, and choosing the right extracurricular activities can be a stressful decision to make. University culture shock is common amongst first-year students, when everyone is still trying to adjust to a new and unfamiliar lifestyle.

    • How to deal with it: Narrow down your options and try a couple of different activities on campus that sound interesting to you. If you don’t end up liking them, there’s always room to try more!

    7 ways to help your student work through decision-making fatigue

    1. Recognize the signs of fatigue

    Recognizing the signs and symptoms of decision fatigue is the first step to helping your student. Submitting applications to colleges is a stressful time for many students, so it comes as no surprise that their decision-making skills are hindered. Decision fatigue can manifest itself in many different ways, but keep an eye out for common symptoms, including:

    • Difficulty focusing
    • Forgetfulness
    • Irritability
    • Chronic tiredness
    • Impaired judgment
    • Loss of motivation

    Once you recognize these symptoms, you’ll be able to evaluate the best way to proceed and help your student regain clarity.

    2. Observe and collect information

    Assessing your child’s risks for decision fatigue can help you come up with the best solution to help them through the college admissions process. Observe your child’s behavior over several days or weeks and try to understand when and where your student might have trouble with decision-making. Evaluate the consequences and come up with the proper interventions to help them through this period of time.

    3. Reduce available options

    Try reducing the available options to help your student overcome decision overload. Conduct a decision-making audit of your child’s day to better inform yourself about the decisions they encounter in their everyday lives.

    One way you can do this is by helping your child create a pros and cons list. Horwatt believes that this is the best way to eliminate and weigh out your options: “A pros and cons list always works well when trying to make a decision about colleges. Putting it onto paper or talking with others may help you to get out of your own head and make a clearer decision,” she says.

    Print out our downloadable pros and cons college list to help ease your decision fatigue.

    4. Use visuals with decision-making

    For high school and college-level students, visual strategies and support can help increase engagement and independence in their day-to-day lives. Teaching your child to rely on scripts, reminders, and visual schedules for routine can reduce the number of decisions they encounter throughout the day.

    5. Establish a healthy sleep schedule

    If you want to ensure your child is prepared for the next chapter of their life, it’s necessary to keep a close eye on their sleeping habits. It’s important for parents to establish healthy sleep routines with their children as they get ready to go off on their own in college.

    Consider doing the following:

    • Encourage a consistent bedtime every night
    • Practice reasonable sleep schedules on the weekends
    • Monitor screen time before bed

    6. Help provide nutrition

    Low glucose levels can severely affect decision-making skills. If your child experiences low blood sugar, it can be more challenging for them to control impulses and make decisions.

    As a parent of a child who may be at risk for decision fatigue during the admissions process, it’s important to monitor what your teen eats from time to time. Here are some tips we recommend to ensure your student is getting adequate nutrition:

    • Ensure that your child consistently eats well-balanced meals
    • Talk with a health care team if your child struggles with low glucose levels
    • Aim to teach your child the signs of low blood sugar in their own body

    7. Model good decision-making habits

    One strategy to review before diving into child-based recommendations is to monitor your own susceptibility to decision fatigue. If you consistently find yourself dealing with burnout or a lack of self-control, it’s probably going to be a challenge to resolve decision fatigue issues with your child. Remember to model good habits when it comes to decision fatigue and focus on reducing your own stressors.

    Decision fatigue during the admissions process can be a difficult obstacle to overcome, but learning how to deal with it and manage your options can help you make the most out of your college years.

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